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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Mali: Dogon Country

The Bandiagara Escarpment
The Bandiagara Escarpment as seen from the Dogon village of Begnimato

Mali has three major tourist attractions that earn it a reputation as one of West Africa's best destinations. Timbuktu is famous for being famous; Djenné is famous for its mosque; and Dogon Country, or Pays Dogon as it's known locally, is famous for its culture, its trekking, and the number of guides who will try to flog you a Dogon tour the minute you step foot in Bamako or Mopti. Luckily the home of the Dogon people is interesting enough to warrant the hype.

Dogon Villages

A Dogon dwelling in Djiguibombo
This hogon's house in Djiguibombo is a typical Dogon dwelling, with the all-important granaries on the left

The most striking images in Dogon Country are the villages perched along the escarpment. Because the Dogon were on the run from the spread of Islam, they wanted their new villages to be secure, so instead of building at the base of the cliffs or on the cliff tops, they built their villages into the cliff faces themselves. They weren't the first to do this, though; before the Dogon arrived the previous inhabitants, the Tellem, had built their own villages into the cliffs, and the remains of these even more ancient dwellings can still be seen high up on the falaise, often 100m or so up a sheer rock face. Nobody is quite sure how the Tellem actually reached their houses, but it's probable that the area was forested in those days, so they could have climbed trees, or they could have dropped ropes from the top of the escarpment and climbed down. Whatever, the Tellem houses add a strange mystique to an area that's already pretty bizarre.

A Catholic church in Djiguibombo
The Dogon are unusual in that they tolerate all kinds of religion; this is the Catholic church in Djiguibombo
A togu-na by the Dogon escarpment
The roof of the Dogon togu-na is kept low on purpose, to prevent discussions from turning into stand-up arguments
A baobab in Djiguibombo
In Djiguibombo we came across the first of many Dogon baobab trees
A granary, a boabab and a togu-na in Djiguibombo
The essence of the Dogon on display in Djiguibombo: from left to right, a granary, a boabab and a togu-na
The Dogon village of Teli
For safety, the Dogon built their villages halfway up the Bandiagara Escarpment, as can be seen here at Teli

My Experience of Dogon

The Sahel mud mosque at Kani-Komboré
The stylish Sahel mud mosque at Kani-Komboré overlooks a pool where mud bricks are made by hand

How can you fail? By being horribly ill, of course. I originally booked a seven-day trek with Mikael, and joining us for the first four days were Gian Luca and Valentina from Italy, and for the first five days Coen and Susan from Holland. However I got so ill I cut it short to five days, returning to Mopti two days early. Being ill in the baking sun of the Dogon was not pleasant; indeed, it was one of the lowest points of my trip so far, which is really saying something. Luckily towards the end things perked up a bit, not because I got better, but because I got used to it. Sometimes rolling with the punches has its own appeal, and in the end I just let Africa pound me senseless.

The ruined buildings of Old Teli
The ruined buildings of Old Teli slowly crumbling away on the cliff, overlooking the new town down below

On the Roof

A granary in Old Teli
A granary in Old Teli

Djiguibombo is a pleasant little Dogon village on the plateau above the escarpment, and although it pales into insignificance compared to some of the beautiful villages further along, I found it fascinating because it was the first one we'd visited. It had all the village elements described above, and it soon became apparent that I'd been right to wait for Mikael. Incredibly polite, witty, always smiling and amazingly tolerant of our inane questions, Mikael was obviously an accomplished guide. The others in the group were also delightful, and I figured that we had all the ingredients for a fantastic trek, as long as I could shift my illness. This was going to be good.

Dogon textiles drying in the sun
The Dogon weave wide strips of white cloth, which they sew together and dye with different colours of mud
A baobab tree in Dogon Country
The baobab tree is the symbol of Africa, and folk stories tell of it being turned upside down by an angry god
Tellem houses in Kani-Komboré
Tiny Tellem houses in Kani-Komboré

Unwell in Dogon

Millet in Dogon Country
The staple food in Dogon Country is millet, which forms the basis of every meal, not to mention millet beer

Day two was agony. A typical trekking day in the Dogon consists of breakfast, followed by a quick excursion round the village you've stayed in, and a trek of a few kilometres to the next village, taking maybe a couple of hours and arriving at, say, 11am. You then stay there until around 3pm, exploring the village once the sun has stopped being so incredibly hot, and then fit in another couple of hours of trekking to reach your destination for the night, where you take a bucket shower, eat, and sleep. It's not a terribly demanding schedule, but when you're ill it's a nightmare. We set off from Kani-Kombolé for what should have been an easy stroll along the foot of the escarpment, but the combination of an awful night's sleep and my worsening diarrhoea meant I struggled to keep walking. By the time we reached our lunch stop at Teli, I was fading fast.

The view along the falaise from Old Teli
The old city of Teli is built into the cliff, and the views are simply great
Sunset over Begnimato
Sunset over Begnimato, where my night's sleep was ruined by the screeching of the local rooster

Party Mood

A chameleon in Dogon Country
I stumbled on this chameleon while walking along the base of the escarpment; it sat there politely, swivelling its eyes while I took a photo

The next morning signalled the end of Ramadan and the festival of Eid al-Fitr. Not surprisingly the end of a month of fasting is a time of great celebration, and a huge gunpowder explosion at 6am was the signal for everyone to leap out of bed and start partying. I needed a party like I needed a hole in the head, but I dutifully dragged myself out of bed and followed the crowds outside the village.

A rock pool in Dogon Country
The landscape of Dogon Country may be dry and harsh, but the escarpment traps enough water for the Dogon to grow crops; there's even enough to create rock pools like this

Take Me Home

The view from Old Teli over the new settlement
The view from Old Teli over newer Teli

As with the morning walk from Endé, the afternoon hike was a real struggle as we trudged back up the falaise to Begnimato, one of the most picturesque villages on the trek. I was seriously considering leaving Dogon Country early; I couldn't take much more trekking with such a weak body, and I needed sleep, I needed a bed near to a toilet, and I needed time to get better, none of which was forthcoming in Begnimato.

The Bandiagara Escarpment
The Bandiagara Escarpment changes shape from one moment to the next
A granary in Nombori
A granary at the base of the falaise at Nombori

Back Down Again

A baobab tree with the falaise in the background
The landscape along the base of the falaise is simply beautiful

Day four was therefore another washout, and on the walk from Begnimato to Dourou, further along the escarpment, I reached the lowest point of the trek, and arguably the lowest point of my entire African trip. I was thoroughly drained, feeling awful, bored with all the sitting around in the middle of the day, sick of the same food for every meal, and totally, totally depressed. I decided I would take the taxi back to Mopti with Gian Luca and Valentina, as they had only joined us for four days, and as I struggled my way along the top of escarpment, clenching and seriously considering flying back home and giving up on Africa, something happened. It was gradual, and I didn't notice it at first, but it turned out to be the bottom of the curve; I had reached the most miserable point of my entire trip, and logic dictated that from here, things could only get better. I couldn't give up now; I had given up the Lariam and it would take a few weeks to leave my system, I would soon shift my diarrhoea, and after this trek I had a whole new country to look forward to. Sure, I could fly home, but why not stick it out for a little longer, just in case?

The main street in Bagourou
The main street through Bagourou

A Highlight?

A jagged section of the Bandiagara Escarpment
The path down the falaise into Nombori winds down through these rock towers

I was far too unwell to appreciate the Dogon Country for what it really is. At the time I hated it, but I would have hated anything in that state; in reality the Dogon is a wonderful place. The people are friendly, the landscape is awesome, and even through the haze of Lariam and diarrhoea I managed to crack the odd smile. As a rose-tinted memory, the Dogon will be a delight to revisit from the comfort of my grandad's rocking chair.